Rainy Weather, Hot Weather

From Karie to Stavronikta

From Karie to Stavronikta

by Haruki Murakami
Translated by Christopher Allison

Athos is a land of abundant greenery. This was a refreshing sight to my eyes, accustomed as they were to the scant trees and rocky soil of the Greek (especially southern Greek) summer. Excluding the stark cliffs that rim the coastline, everywhere you look there is nothing but lush forest and grassland.

Belching smoke all the way up the steep mountain trail, the bus brought us to the town of Karie, the capitol, which lies on the far side of a high ridge. Although it is the capitol city, Karie is as quiet a town as could possibly be. Even calling it a town might be stretching it. It's really just a peaceful little hamlet. In the area around the bus stop, there are only a few ancient stone structures standing in a row. There's a church, a bell tower, and a couple of shops. There are some dogs and cats here, too. And a few scattered people. Having set down their bags and packages, a few monks were lounging in the sun. One old monk approached when he saw me and asked where I was from. When I said I was from Japan, he asked whether I was Orthodox. No, I'm not, I replied, so he asked what my faith was. Lacking an alternative, I said I was Buddhist. If I had said that I didn't have one, I would have been kicked out of town. "Are there Orthodox churches in Japan?" he asked. When I replied that there were (St. Nicholai Church in Kanda is Orthodox), he flashed a satisfied smile at me. Even a country like Japan is not beyond salvation, I guess.

I must have had this same conversation more than ten times during my trip through Athos. It was always repeated in exactly the same order without a single word different. Where are you from? Are You Orthodox? Are there Orthodox churches in Japan. After all, their faith is the center of their world, the center of their existence, the center of their sphere of thought. It is the real world to them. Their concentration begins there and ends there. They are completely different people from us.

We received our documentation at the headquarters office in Karie. Athos is sub-divided into 20 individual parishes, corresponding to the 20 monasteries, which preserve their independence within the greater autonomy of the whole region, with the exception of Karie, which is a so-called 壮pecial district.?Each monastery selects representatives to come here and gather together in the 舛hurch Council?which decides issues facing the whole peninsula. This system has survived almost unchanged since the time the monasteries were founded. The principle is very democratic.

We received safety permits here. Finally we were ready to set out on our trip around the monasteries. Because we've been getting further and further behind schedule throughout the day, by this point it was already 3:00. We probably wouldn't be able to get too far. We had to decide right away where we were going to stop for the night. All of the monasteries close their gates simultaneously at sunset, and once the gates are closed they absolutely do not open again until the next morning. It was thus decided more than a thousand years ago. No matter how hard you pound, they won't let you in. If we didn't make it to one of the monasteries by sunset, we would have no choice but to rough it. Apart from the monasteries, there are no other places to stay in the region.

Since it was still summer, sleeping outside wouldn't necessarily be that bad. Although we didn't have a lot of food, we were well enough provisioned to fend off starvation until morning. The problem was the wildlife. There are wolves in Athos. And while there aren't very many of them, we had been warned about them at the outset. They said that the wolves came out at night. I was willing to believe that a place like this, that had been preserved more or less untouched in its natural state, would be the kind of place where wolves lurk, and was not thus overly keen about sleeping outside in it. So we had to look at the map in order to determine distances and times required to cover them.

It was decided for the time being to head for the monastery at Stavronikta. The road there would take about two hours. Once we had made it there, we would continue on to the Iviron monastery. We decided that, given it was our first day and the hour was late, we would let our circumstances of the moment shape our plans.

We hitched our packs up on our backs and started down the road to Stavronikta. The three o'clock sun was strong, and sweat dripped from our bodies, but the road itself was pleasant. It was enough to make you want to hum a little tune as you walked along. To tell the truth, there was actually a bus that ran from Karie to Stavronikta. But we had decided to walk it anyway. We had come here for the purpose of struggling through the whole distance ourselves. Walking. It was a nice mountain road. A wide variety of birds could be heard singing in the forest, and once in a while they would shoot up and dart across the sky. There were small shrines with crucifixes on top scattered here and there along the road. There were also billboards that read "There is peace in the forest and God is smiling. Please prevent forest fires." That's exactly the way it was.

We met a tall, thin Greek boy walking along the same road as we were. He was on his way to a retreat center where he would help in the production of a tapestry. Throughout Athos, there are a number of these retreats, set apart from the monasteries, where a small number of monks produce sacred art objects. The lad was not himself a monk, but occasionally he visited this particular center and took part in the work there.

At length we arrived at the Stavronikta monastery. Of all the monasteries in Athos, this one is the smallest. Upon entering the monastery, there is an ancient stone aqueduct on the left. A row of ponds abuts up against it. There is also a tall, sturdy-looking tower. Since Stavronikta Monastery is close to the coast, long ago it was under constant attack by pirates, and its defenses are appropriately severe. From the direction of the sea, it more nearly resembles a fortress than a monastery.

When we arrived at the monastery, we first met with the head monk, who offered us Greek coffee, Ouzo mixed with water, and this sweet jelly candy called rukumi. We were offered this candy without fail at all the monasteries we visited, and it was sweet enough to loosen you teeth and stiffen your jaw. Since it was, of course, hand made, the flavor was slightly different at each monastery, the only constant being the unbearable sweetness.

Ouzo is a domestic Greek liquor, the alcohol content of which is quite high. It gives off a pretty overwhelming stink, and turns milky-white when mixed with water. And it's very cheap. It's not really the kind of thing that sits well on the Japanese palate, and it certainly isn't my favorite thing in the world to drink, but it does relax a tired body as soon as it hits the stomach. The coffee is served with ample sugar and is also extremely sweet. We came to call this the Athos Three Point Set, the purpose of which was to dispel a traveler's weariness with doses of alcohol and sugar. At any rate, whenever we were fatigued they tasted great. I'm always grateful for alcohol and coffee, but at first the sweetness of rukumi was too much for me and I couldn't eat it. I took a nibble and then left the rest.

Later, as the road became more difficult, and my body grew more and more fatigued, I've find myself wanting to eat rukumi as soon as we would arrive at the next monastery. But I'm getting ahead of myself again.